Sunday, November 13, 2011
Starring: Kyle McLachlan, Isabella Rossellini, Dennis Hopper, Laura Dern
By Alan Bacchus
Early on in this film, after we see Kyle McLachlan’s character, Jeffrey Beaumont, find a human ear just sitting there in the pristine high-cut grass in his small Midwestern town, David Lynch’s roving camera magnificently pushes inside the ear. As we move in, Alan Splet’s delicious sound design drones louder and louder, morphing into the prickly sound of insects munching on grass, all of which is amplified and engrossed to creep us out. It’s perhaps the most signature image and sounds of David Lynch’s career, expressing his career-long fascination with finding nightmarish evil behind the fronts of purity and innocence.
After suffering the indignation of failing to deliver on the big budgeted sci-fi franchise in waiting, Dune, in 1986 Lynch seemed go back inward, summoning latent fears and closeted fetishes for inspiration. The result is one of his three or four masterpieces – and the film that first defined the term ‘Lynchian’.
Blue Velvet lays the stylistic and thematic groundwork, which he would expand upon in his later films. Of course, the Lumberton locale, which Lynch opens up and, like his rotten apple visual metaphor, becomes the environment for his seminal Twin Peaks TV series.
The actual plotting of the film, lead character Jeffrey Beaumont's investigation and the movements and motivations of the nefarious elements of the story, quickly fall to the background once Lynch starts the film’s headlong cinematic momentum. Starting with the third visit to the apartment, the film goes deeper into Lynch’s subconscious, and by the time Jeffrey’s fateful night is over we don’t care about who the ‘well-dressed’ man is or who the 'yellow' man is.
The wonder of Blue Velvet lays in Lynch's amazing control of tone. And it doesn’t take him long to hypnotize us. The opening credit sequence is masterful. An ominously dark and brooding music cue laid over his flowing curtain of blue velvet is enchanting. The film then segues into a dreamlike melancholy of the slow-moving rural life in Lumberton.
Throughout the picture Lynch moves us back and forth between these two extremes with supreme confidence and command of the medium.
The performances are typically subdued. Jeffrey isn’t so much a developed character as another pawn for Lynch to use to express his mood. His love story with Sandy allows Lynch to craft his grandiloquent melodramatic set pieces. The house party dance scene, for instance, set to Angelo Badlamenti and Julee Cruise’s swooning dream song, could melt butter. It’s a scene that takes us out of the accelerating criminal plotting for a brief pause of delicious melodrama. Why? Just because. And we love David Lynch because of it.
Sit this scene next to one of Dennis Hopper's maliciously over-the-top sadistic fuck-tirades and it's the cinematic equivalent of bipolar syndrome.
Before Quentin used pop music as a counterpoint to violence Lynch did it masterfully here. Who ever thought Roy Orbison or Ketty Lester could be made so frightening?
Looking back, the reuse of Lynch’s motives in his subsequent films arguably tempers the effect of this film. It’s debatable, but few would doubt the combination of all his motifs reached its zenith in Mulholland Drive – a film more powerful, cynical and therefore haunting than Blue Velvet. And so, watching Blue Velvet for the first time versus watching Blue Velvet after seeing Twin Peaks, Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire is not the same experience. Thankfully, I still have memories of that first viewing. To this day if I ever here Bobby Vinton crooning Blue Velvet again, it now brings a spine-tingling sense of danger, which, in combination with the sound of nitrous oxide hissing from a gas tank, will likely have me running out the door.
Blue Velvet is available on Blu-ray from MGM/20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.